Weeks 57 through 60

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September and October have been the months of hikes. It’s been surprisingly warm during the day, though the evenings have been chilly. I’ve gone somewhere almost every weekend with friends, and I’ve watched the trees turn from green to gold to rust.

At the end of September, a friend with a car took us on a difficult hike to Cima Rocca. I’m not that accustomed to hiking, though I enjoy it quite a lot, and this hike was particularly difficult. It went at a fairly steep uphill the entire way, until the very end, at which point it became nearly a Via Ferrata style climb. That is to say, there was a metal guide cable, and you had to use your hands to scramble up the rocks.

It took around three hours to climb to the top, with your thighs and calves protesting the entire way, and just one hour to come down, with your knees complaining. As hard as it was, the view from the top was absolutely worth it (though it was a misty day). Not only that, but there were some cool old caves dug out from WWII along the way, and a great deal of fresh air. In the end, this was one of the hardest, but also one of the most fun hikes I have done.
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In October, I had the chance to visit Milan to meet the same friend who I met recently in Prague. Milan was… money. The city center was small in terms of area, but grandiose in terms of content. The cathedral was huge, the castle had a moat, and the shopping/fashion was so high-end, that the cheaper area was the one that had labels like Prada and Louis Vuitton. The expensive fashion district had clothes that looked like they had just come off a model– you know, the weird ones, that no normal human would ever wear.

Although I usually like visiting museums, the one in the castle somehow didn’t impress me. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the world-class art in huge cities like Paris and Berlin. Overall, two days in the city were just enough for me to see everything, though if I was the shopping type, I’m sure I would have needed more.

The next weekend, I headed back to Saarbrücken (SB) to retrieve my bike, and visit my friends. After a 10 hour commute through lovely Austria, I found myself in Germany again.

I think I have a sort of love-hate relationship with SB. Although I am frustrated at the quality of schooling, I can now look back and realize that it was better than what I will see here this year, because there were many different professors to work with, and many different course offerings. In addition, SB has an amazing community of students. Everyone in the local program is studying the same thing, so you have a lot of people to work with, and a lot in common with those around you.

Here in Italy, I have found it difficult to integrate into the local community in the same way. Everyone in CIMeC is studying cognitive neuroscience together, so they share all the same classes and have the same interests. It’s possible that we have more in common than I think, but I don’t share any classes with them, so I wouldn’t know anyway. The computer science students in Povo also share all their classes, and by virtue of this, have also formed a tight knit community. Basically, I am rather on the periphery of what is going on here. So while my personal life here is good, my academic life is shitty.

Coming back to SB reminded me of everything I am missing out on.

I returned from SB feeling rather disappointed, but fortunately, a friend was coming to visit for a couple of days, which helped lift my spirits. We wanted to show her around some of the sights, so we headed back into the mountains. The first day was unfortunately misty again when we took a small trip an a hike just above Rovereto. The second day was a little clearer, and we headed up higher, up a windy road into the hills nearby, where we hiked through falling tree leaves, to the top of a large hill.

My friend only had a couple days with us, and once again, I had to say goodbye. One great thing about my master’s program is that I get to meet a whole ton of amazing international people. However, the entire experience is basically a revolving door of goodbyes, as people finish their masters and head back to their home countries, and you wonder all the while if you will ever see them ever again.

In any case, I had to bear my sadness on the move, because the next day we went on a trip with the university right back in the mountains, to Rio Novella. I stumbled through this trip, a bit tired after the last three days, but happy to chat with all the various international students from different departments. We went through apple orchards, to a really steep canyon, and through a gorge to a church on top of a cliff. You’re probably tired of hearing this– the views were amazing.

Finally, at the very end of the month, I visited the Castello Beseno, which is a castle on top of a hill not far from Rovereto. It was a peaceful day, and there weren’t many tourists there, so we had a lovely stroll throughout the whole thing. It was a real medieval castle, like the kind you read about in history books! Although I’ve been in Europe for a year now, I didn’t visit that many castles last year, and as an American, I am still impressed by these historic structures.

Apart from taking trips and just enjoying life… I have to admit that in terms of work, I’ve done very little this month. As I mentioned before, there doesn’t seem to be that much for me to do in the department here. I’m only taking a few classes, and they aren’t that good. The machine learning class in Povo has a really good instructor, but strangely it doesn’t have any homework, so I’ve just had to do my best to study on my own. The Human Language Technologies course in Rovereto is possibly the worst course I have ever taken. The topics are all repetition from last year’s coursework, and the lecturing is both boring and uninformative.

I’m quite frustrated (but unsurprised) that my second year university does very little to coordinate a curriculum that will be useful to second years. As I was warned by my second year colleagues last year, in the LCT program you basically end up doing Year 1 twice. My hope is that I will be able to teach myself everything that I haven’t managed to learn yet. I mean, I mostly taught myself last year anyway. I’ve been working on linear algebra in my spare time, but right now, my main goal is to find an internship and a master’s thesis topic.

At least daily life in Rovereto has been good.

However, there’s one more bit of frustrating news. My husband has been in Italy for almost two months now, and my stay permit is nowhere in sight. Once I do get the stay permit, it will take him probably at least a week to get the appointment with Questura (immigration) sorted so that he can be allowed to stay provisionally in Italy. However, with the Shengen visa waiver that Americans get, he is only allowed to be in Europe for 90 out of each 180 days. That means he has to go home ASAP, so that he can save some days for doing all the paperwork once I get my stay permit and he returns. So I guess he’ll be going back for Thanksgiving, and I’ll be here all alone for a while again.

Costs:

It seems like it does help to have a second person splitting costs. Even with all the dining out and travel, I’ve managed to stay under budget. However, keep in mind, my utilities payment has not been charged yet (it will be very expensive at the start of November because of move-in costs, but should be much cheaper after that), and my internet bill was low I think because of last month’s deposit payment.

I see a lot of extraneous items below. It’s time to think about reigning it in again. Phone is too high, and I should probably finally pull the plug on Project Fi… I am just such a sucker for the convenience. The bouldering gym passes will eventually get used, but I am going to swap to mainly doing aerial now (I will be ramping it up to twice a week), so those were not really a necessity after all. The miscellaneous category was just silly spending. As usual, all the dining out is ridiculous. I will say that I won’t feel bad about the coats, because I got a seriously insane discount there.

  • €235 – rent
  • €14 – internet
  • €60 – phone (I should probably drop Project Fi, since the European plans are way cheaper…)
  • €50 – bouldering gym passes
  • €150 – aerial silks classes
  • €60 – transport, misc stuff for the house
  • €55 – a coat and a warm jacket for winter (fantastic thrift store price)
  • €231 – groceries
  • €120 – dining (including amazing gelato at Zenzero in Rovereto!)
  • Total: €975
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The Drive

 

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View of a road from the train through Austria.

I loved taking long road trips around the US, both seeing new destinations, as well as driving there. We’d gather up all our things– our clothes, our food, our tents, our games– and we’d head off towards the forest of huge Sequoias in the North, or the vast deserts to the East. Even when we just took day trips to the hills nearby or the beach an hour away, I never minded driving. When we left in the morning (or let’s be real, in the early afternoon, since we never got out on time), the car trip meant that the fun was all ahead. When we started on our way home, usually long after the sun had set, it meant our comfy beds were waiting for us. On dark stretches of road, we could see the stars outside the car window.

Sometimes, later, when I was the one behind the wheel, driving in the car felt like both my adventure and my home. Often, I felt like I could easily skip my exit on the freeway, and just keep going into the sunset, to find whatever waited for me at the edge of the world.

But I never did keep going. I always took the exit. Why did I do that? The world is so vast and there’s so much to see. Why not just let the moment take you away? I guess there was always a reason: work in the morning, people waiting at home, laziness to make the trip back, discomfort at the thought of facing the unknown. Maybe the reasons made sense, or maybe they were just excuses. In any case, I never answered the call of the road.

Now, I don’t have a car, and I don’t have the same chance. Taking the train is just not the same. I don’t know if it’s the other people chatting nearby, or if it’s just the constant foreignness of everything around me, but there is neither the excitement of adventure, nor the anticipation of homecoming. Rather, there is a feeling of constant displacement, like my trip is anchored between nowhere and nowhere else.

On the train, I can’t just skip my exit, and let the rails carry me away– the conductors don’t take a liking to that. On the train, I can’t let my mind wander as I become a part of the vehicle, controlling its motions over the smooth asphalt as easily as I control the motion of my own body. On the train, I can’t stop to grab a bite at an interesting hole-in-the-wall, or to explore a little-traveled corner of the world.

Instead, I must submit to the vehicle and the system propelling it onwards. I must agree with the system on my intentions ahead of time, and accept its plan for me. I must fight the timetables, and struggle through the crowds, and all my things must fit in a handy bag. Oftentimes, I don’t even get the window seat.

Of all things, I never thought I would miss the drive.

Weeks 52 through 56

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I’ve talked a lot about getting an apartment with Internet, working on my stay permit, and picking courses. What I didn’t mention, is that I also took a number of small trips over the course of the last month. It turns out that this year I am living in what is probably of the most beautiful places in the world. I don’t have a car here, of course, so, unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to just take off and see everything, but I have had some opportunities this month to explore nonetheless.

At the start of the month, I visited Bologna, where my husband has relatives. This trip wasn’t exactly planned ahead of time. It turns out that as my husband was coming here, to Italy, some of the stuff he was bringing in his pack got stolen. That stuff included a translation of our marriage certificate. Our relatives knew a translator that was willing to help us get it done quickly, and this became an opportunity to take an overnight trip to Bologna, where they live. I imagine we could have gotten it done here in Rovereto, but it would have definitely taken longer, and we really thought we needed it ASAP, because we thought we had to apply for my husband’s stay permit along with mine. In the end it turned out that we didn’t have to do this, but rather, we have to wait for mine to come in before he can apply for his at all. By the way, this means that he will probably have to leave the country once his Shengen visa waiver runs out, because my permit will most likely not come before that time.

As a result of all of this, the trip was a little stressful, but it was made worth it by the fact that we got to spend some time with our relatives (and I got to know them better). Also, Bologna was pretty awesome. It was bigger than Rovereto or Trento, but still fairly walkable, and the public transportation seemed good enough. The center of the city is covered in porticos (covered archways over walkways), which helped keep the heat from the summer sun at bay, along with old stone towers, cute restaurants (with delicious cured meat), and of course, gelato.

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Later on in the month, I took a trip with the university to Lago di Garda, the biggest lake in Italy, which we are only a couple hours away from. The morning was cloudy, which was a shame, because it meant the guided tour didn’t want to take us on the hike up to the castle in Arco (apparently it was dangerously slippery). We visited Riva del Garda instead. The other LCTs and I broke off from the guided tour almost immediately, and headed up a light hike to the castle overlooking the town. At this point, the sun broke through the clouds, glistening over the waters of the lake, and showing us a bit of the lovely day that was to come.

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After this, we went and grabbed lunch (we had pizza, pasta and gnocchi) before meeting the tour back at the bus. Next, we traveled by bus to Malcesine, a town on the banks of the lake. By this time, the weather had cleared up and we had a great time exploring the castle there, which overlooks much of the lake. Apparently, this lake is great to swim in when it’s warm, and I really hope I get the chance to come back next summer.

Finally, just recently, one of the LCT students who has a car took us to the mountains. On the way up, we saw a church literally built into a cliffside. It was really funny to see a normal building inside a cliff. It was almost like the stone was trying to gobble it up.

Afterwards, we went on a ~10km hike high up in the mountains, called Forra del Lupo/Wolfsschlucht (Wolf’s Gorge). The hike went up hill most of the way, sometimes getting somewhat steep (but never so steep that you had to climb). We reached the Forra del Lupo part sometime in the middle. It was a deep crevice in the hillside, with built up stone overlooks before and after it. Afterwards, we kept hiking until we ended up at the very top of the mountain (at around 1600m elevation, if I recall correctly). At the top was an old WWII fort made of white stone. Unfortunately, it was at this point that my broken-ish phone, finally gave out, so I couldn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked. However, it’s not a great loss– no picture can capture these breathtaking views.

Costs

The costs over the last 5 weeks are insanely high. This is probably the most I’ve spent in any single month in all my life (except for once when I bought a fancy computer). Move in costs to the new apartment were crazy (a lot of it is a deposit that we will hopefully get back), but our family helped us with a good chunk of them. I also traveled a fair amount, so that added to it. Finally, there’s two of us now, and that makes food and stuff more expensive. You always forget how much it costs to buy all those little things (e.g. cups/plates, blankets, towels, etc.) that you need when you are in an actual apartment, and how much it takes to start off with a nice full pantry.

Note: Below is just what I spent. My husband spent some of his own money as well. We don’t share any bank accounts, so I will probably continue to report on only my own spending, since it’s just easier.

  • €122 – public transport (50 for a pass, the rest before I got the pass)
  • €403 – travel to Rovereto at the start, travel to Bologna, and some smaller trips
  • €111 – dining out
  • €233 – groceries
  • €302 – stuff for the apartment,
  • €49 – phone is extra high due to no internet at home and making tons of calls
  • €1890 – rent, deposit, Internet, apartment fees
  • Total: €1220 + €1890 = €3110

Summer Travels (Weeks 48-51)

August has been a whirlwind. I finished out the first year of my master’s degree, and went on a 16 day vacation full of walking, hiking, and swimming. In total, I visited Berlin, Potsdam, Dresden, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona.

Germany

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View from Berliner Dom

My trip started with a train ride to Berlin. The week was a little rainy, but I still enjoyed walking and seeing the sites, and hiding from the rain in museums. I stayed in Wombat’s City Hostel which was pretty comfortable, although my roommates were coming in and out at all hours as usual, so I didn’t get much sleep.

What struck me most in Berlin was how the history of WWII and the Cold War were woven into the fabric of the city. Monuments to those murdered during the Holocaust and tours through old bomb shelters clearly describe the atrocities of those times. Old pieces of the Berlin Wall are displayed like art pieces at Checkpoint Charlie, covered in graffiti at the East Side Gallery, covered in gum at Potsdamer Platz, and pocked with bomb blasts in the Typography of Terror museum.

However, the monument that stuck with me the most was probably the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), not far from the Bradenburger Tor. From the street, it looks like a huge collection of unmarked tombs on uneven ground. From within, it’s a dark and claustrophobic forest of pale gray towers. It makes a clear statement against the crimes of war and genocide, and its prominent location in the city is a testament to Germany’s desire to learn from its painful past.

My visits to these monuments was, unfortunately, particularly timely, because the neo-Nazi Charlottesville attack happened in the US while I was in Berlin. The violence of the attack juxtaposed with these stark monuments that scream for peace and unity just underscores the absurdity of hate and terrorism (not that the emphasis was needed). Maybe if the US had more monuments to the courage of those our country has failed and those we have wronged, we would not be headed down a crooked path today.

On my last day in the region, I took a small trip to Potsdam, and walked around the city center and the Sanssouci Palace and gardens. It was a cloudy day, and the gardens were absolutely massive, so there were plenty of places I could relax without anyone else around. The next day I headed out to Dresden to spend one more day walking around the city center. Dresden was completely bombed out during the war, but it has been rebuilt, and is absolutely adorable. Both cities were worth a visit, but a day trip to each seemed like enough (although I didn’t go into any museums there).

Truthfully, by now, I had completely tired myself out from four straight days of nothing but walking through cities, and little sleep. It was a sunny day, so after I’d seen the main avenues of Dresden, I ended up crashing on some grass in a park and taking a short nap. No regrets.

Czech Republic

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Lovely hike in the Czech Republic

After Dresden, I finally made my way to the Czech Republic. I was really looking forward to going there, since I would stay with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. He lived a little ways outside of Prague, which was perfect, because we were able to get away from the city for a while and enjoy some of the beautiful forests of Bohemia. He picked me up at the train station, and we began the business of catching up on what had happened in our lives since our last meeting.

Over the next few days, we traveled around the countryside on old trains that rattled and clacked, past tiny stations with flowers in the windows, each one manned my a collection of human conductors. It was loud, and shaky, but somehow so charming nonetheless, and the trains seemed to run mostly on time (unlike in Germany). On the first day, we traveled to Křivoklát Castle, an old keep where the kings of Bohemia lived in medieval times.  Afterwards, we ate a tasty Czech lunch at a nearby restaurant, and hiked around some of the paths nearby to a small hill overlooking the river. I’m not sure this is a place I would have thought to travel to, had I been visiting Prague on my own, and I really enjoyed this trip.

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Křivoklát Castle

Although we spent most of our time getting a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city, of course we did see some of Prague as well. I spent a whole day on my own exploring the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, and all the little, towers, and passageways of the city. One passageway was so narrow that it had a pedestrian stop light, because only one person could fit through at a time.

After Berlin, I didn’t feel like going into too many museums, but we did see the Mucha Museum (an art nouveau artist) together. It’s a small museum, but it would be hard to find such a large collection of his work in another city. Both days that I was in Prague, I ate Trdelník (Chimney Cake), which was like the Baumstriezel I had in Germany but with ice cream inside. If only this fried dough street food would spread to the US!

Wherever we went in the Czech Republic, my friend seemed to have something to say about the area, or the people, or the history. He told me about the railway system, the plants in the woods, the architecture, and the Czech nobility. He told me how Prague houses the Czech crown jewels and how during important events, seven important leaders open seven locks to retrieve the jewels and display them to the people. The crown itself may only be worn by a monarch of royal blood, and since the last monarch is dead, it may never be worn again.

My friend had plenty such stories, and this, combined with the beautiful medieval castles, cathedrals, and towers dotting the city, as well as the lush oak and birch woods we leisurely strolled through, made my whole time in the Czech Republic feel like a romp through fairyland.

Spain

It was with some reluctance that I left the charming Czech Republic for Barcelona, where I would split an AirBnB with some friends. I was reluctant to leave, not only because of how lovely my time in Bohemia had been, but also because just two days before, Barcelona, too, was the victim of a terrorist van attack that killed 13 or more, and left over a hundred injured. My friends and I were staying near La Rambla, where the attack happened.

Upon arrival, we saw huge collections of flowers, candles, and small gifts laid out all along the avenue honouring those who had been killed in this senseless act of violence. It was a sobering sight. There were also plenty of well-armed cops dotting the street, but less of a military presence than I had feared there would be. Overall, travel around the city wasn’t hampered too much by any restrictions, but there was definitely a somber feeling in certain areas.

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Gifts in remembrance of the La Rambla attack

Despite all this, in the end, my stay in Barcelona was no less lovely than my stay in the Czech Republic. The place we were at was smack dab in the middle of the historic Gothic Quarter, literally facing the huge Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi. Below us was a square where street musicians would gather to play on their accordion, guitar, or violin in the evening. It was one like one of those things you see in the movies.

On one of the days, we met up with another local friend, who showed us around the city. We hit up hit up all the major sights and vantage points, including Montjuïc and the famous La Sagrada Familia, for which we had reserved tickets online (you should definitely reserve them because the line outside was really long otherwise).

The rest of the days were spent at the beaches in town and at Castelldefels, snorkling near Punta del Molar (we took a tour there with Barcelona Excursions, but I think it wouldn’t be that hard to get there on your own either), and otherwise just splashing around in the perfectly warm and clear Mediterranean sea, which was exactly what I needed during summer vacation!

We also ate some of the best food I have ever had. The creamiest paella, the freshest seafood, the most refreshing gazpacho, and the ham… my god… the ham. It tastes nutty and rich, nothing like what we call ham (it’s really quite wrong to use the same word in this context). I haven’t had food this good for months.

The best part in terms of food, was going to La Boqueria Market, and gathering up supplies for a picnic dinner. They’ve got everything there: a variety of otherworldly ham, various salami, cheeses of all sorts (including really good Catalonian goat cheeses), veggies, fruits (e.g. a kilo of fresh figs for just 2 euro), smoothies, baked bread, seafood, raw meat (including atypical meats like tripe and even brain), nuts and dried fruits, chocolate and other sweets, spices… I mean, it’s just crazy. Wandering through markets is one of my favorite things to do, and this market absolutely did not disappoint, although it was pretty pricey, of course.

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Ham at La Broqueria in Barcelona

Looking Ahead 

At the end of this long and wonderful vacation, I came back to Saarbrücken for just 1 crazy working day to wrap up everything I had to do, and the weekend to pack up my things and clean my apartment, before leaving for Italy. I’m still apprehensive about the move, because I have no idea how everything is gonna go down, and I don’t speak Italian. I’m particularly worried about figuring out how to set up the Internet, which I expect I will not have for the first few weeks. Ugh. Anyway, I’ll just have to figure out a way to muddle through it all.

Oh yea, I also just turned 30, so you know, I’m sort of re-evaluating my life’s decisions a lot at the moment. But I believe (and hope) that in the end, it will all have been worth it.

Costs

I planned this trip nearly at the last moment, and I ended up paying a lot, since tickets to everywhere were already fairly expensive. I also spent a lot while traveling, without giving the budget too much thought. Fortunately I saved a good amount back when I worked, so this sort of thing is possible occasionally, but I think I need to watch it more carefully once in Italy. I’m looking forward to hopefully finding a paid internship while I’m there as well.

  • €225 – rent
  • €90 – health insurance
  • €54 – clothes
  • €40 – phone (abnormally high since I used a lot of minutes this month)
  • €120 – dining out (not during the trip, since I didn’t buy groceries all month)
  • €1186 – everything for the trip (~200 trains, ~250 planes, ~350 accomodation)
  • €90 – train to Italy
  • Total: €1805

Walls and Birds

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Here, the sun beats down brighter than in the north, and the air smells of the sea. There is another scent there too– one of stone and golden sand and very fine dust. Ten generations have walked passed these walls; walls saturated with the histories of those who lived and died within them and without.

Birds gather on the palm trees and stone arches, displaying their many-coloured plumage. Each of them comes from a different place, and their colours range from shimmering green, to vibrant red, to snowy white. Despite their varied origins, they chirp happily to one another, their voices raising a cacophony of noise to the heavens. One flies away, and for a moment, the others fall silent, but only for a moment. They know this place is just a stopover, and each of them understands the pull of the seasons, for they must all hurry back and forth across the world, ever in chase of the best meal in the south or the best home in the north.

The old walls stand as they ever stood, stoic to these comings and goings. They drink the heat of the sun in the daylight, and keep the cold at bay during the night. Patience is their only virtue, but they have it in spades. Some of them are destroyed and rebuilt to serve new purposes. Others are worn down by the years until they are only dust, and this dust is spread amongst​ the same winds that carry the birds to their next destination.

In our travels, we are not unlike the birds. Some of us chase the summer sun, others run from winter’s cold– or towards it– and others still know only that they must leave, but never why. I wonder if the walls are ever perplexed by our migrations, haphazard as they must seem. But one day, even the walls will travel on the wind, just as we do with each passing generation. Perhaps they look at us in envy, wishing they too could so easily experience the change of scenery, before they turn to dust and ruin. Or perhaps they laugh at our whimsy, before turning their faces back to the warmth of their beloved sun.

(These are the birds outside my window that keep me up at 4:30am… but it’s hard to stay mad at them. The picture here, and the one above are from my trip to Malta.)

Weeks 42 & 43

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Rovereto, Italy. Population: ~37,000.

This is the town where I am going to live next school year. It is full of narrow alleyways and wide piazzas with adorable restaurant patios. It is small. Compared to what I am used to, it is tiny. I took a trip there last week, to get a lay of the land. Of course, I liked the mountains best of all, but since I don’t have a car now, traveling to the best hiking spots might be challenging.

I am apprehensive about leaving.  I’ve made a lot of friends/connections here. Although there is much about the system here that I dislike, and I don’t really like my apartment or the town that much, I’ve become used to the way things work here, and who’s to say the next place will have a better system. Anyway it will take me time to become accustomed to everything again. The bother of dealing with bureaucracy again and the language barrier in particular concern me. I don’t speak Italian hardly at all.

On the other hand, I am excited about leaving. The new place is beautiful, I get to learn another language, I get to live in the mountains again (I missed that), I will meet more great people, and I will just get to experience new things.

In some way, I don’t exactly know how to feel. But the plans have been laid, and things will happen in the order that they happen, and I will tackle them as they come.

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Trento, Italy. There are many buildings with beautiful frescos here.

The trip to the Trento area from Saarbrücken was very nice. I went with two other people, one of whom had a car and was willing to drive. We made a road trip out of it. It was great being on the road again, like at home. We stopped in Innsbruck on the way there, and on the way back we stopped by Ehrenberg Castle in Austria, which has the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. The bridge swayed as we walked across it, but the view was amazing. I wish we had had time to stop by even more places, since I can’t imagine I’ll be back this way by car again, but it was great to see as much as we did, given that we took a random weekend off (and skipped some classes) to do it!

 

In my life, I have always considered myself shy or introverted. There’s always a part of myself I keep hidden in conversations with other people, and I definitely feel the stress of navigating social situations. On the other hand, I have always enjoyed learning new things, and making connections with other people. A lot of the time, to learn something new (especially a language), you have to talk to people. You have to ask them questions about their work, or their lives. Sometimes, people don’t feel comfortable talking to someone they don’t know, so it makes sense to share a little bit of yourself in the process. I’ve tried my best to be my honest self with other people, in so far as I can be, but it’s never easy to open up. Sometimes, I can’t keep track of people’s reactions, and I start to go on a rant about something I feel strongly about. I don’t notice that I might be coming off too strong.

For the first time in my life, after the road trip, I was called chatty.  It was such a stark contrast to how I have been described in the past, i.e. introverted, nerdy, quiet. I don’t feel like I have changed from that introverted personality that I have on the inside. However, perhaps I have somehow changed how that personality is realized. Instead of running and hiding from these social situations, I must have decided at some point to face them head on.

It’s kind of like the ocean waves. When the wave is coming, you can either run from it to reach the safety of the beach, letting the wave peter out behind you, or you can dive into it head first and come out on the other side. The other side is deep, and you have to keep paddling to avoid drowning, but you get to swim amongst the fishes.

I don’t think one choice is better than another, but it’s good to know that the strategy can be changed when the need arises. Apparently, I have somehow managed to change it once subconsciously. I would like to learn to do this at will.

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Innsbruck. (Europe seems to really like coloured houses on riverbanks.)

Once in Italy, I managed to do some apartment searching. The choice of where to live is overwhelming, especially with the travel considerations. Rovereto is where the faculty is located, so it’s where most of my friends will probably be, and it’s cheaper to live there, but it’s really small (37k people). Trento is a nicer city for what I am used to (117k people), and I felt more comfortable there. It’s closer to the other parts of the university campus, i.e. CS and language and probably sports too. Travel between the two takes only 15 minutes by train, but the train only goes Rovereto -> Trento until 23:00 and Trento -> Rovereto until 21:00. Travel to the CS campus is apparently another bus ride away (I didn’t get the chance to try to do that though).

Without knowing exactly where I will be taking classes, it’s hard to judge the best place to live. However, since we arrived on a Friday, we had a little bit of time to search around. There was a train strike going on, so we didn’t manage to make it to Trento that day, but we did look a bit in Rovereto. Surprisingly, I saw some places that really appealed to me. The language barrier was a real thing (with one person not being able to speak anything but Italian), so I actually learned a lot of new words (well, since I hardly speak Italian, there is a lot to learn, and these are all pretty basic):

  • il appartamento – apartment
  • il propretario – the owner
  • il contratto – the contract
  • la lavatrice – clothes washing machine
  • il riscaldatore – heating
  • l’acqua – water
  • la camera – bedroom
  • il bagno – bathroom
  • la cucina – kitchen
  • mio marito – my husband (I had to explain I am moving with him)
  • il gatto – cat (most apartments seem cat friendly)
  • la luce – light (electricity)
  • il gas – gas (for stove)
  • il letto – bed
  • il divano – couch
  • le spese condominiali – condominium charges (for the building)
  • pagare – to pay
  • potere – to be able to (io posso, tu puoi, Lei può, noi possiamo, voi potete, loro possono)

I am actually emailing with one apartment right now. Hopefully this will work out and I won’t have to worry about searching for a place in August. I think that things will be more expensive in August, and also, I’ll be busy doing many other things. It would be nice if this could just get settled right now.

Costs:

  • €173 – dining out/ snacks
  • €34 – groceries
  • €55 – hostel
  • €59 – trains, gas
  • €30 – phone (more expensive this month)
  • €16 – clothes
  • €2 – launtry
  • Total: €369

Weeks 39 through 41

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Valetta, seen from the ferry to Sliema.

Malta was lovely. It was three weeks ago now, and I still find myself daydreaming of limestone walls and the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean. It was hot and dry like back home, but the sea was much more pleasant. The water tasted of salt, but without the sharp bitterness that I am used to from the Pacific, the temperature was warm and pleasant, unlike the bone-chilling cold of the ocean, and the water was calm so you could just swim for miles. There were jellyfish in some places, like St. Peter’s Pool, which was a place we went cliff diving, but that was the only bad thing, and it wasn’t everywhere.

My trip there was organized by the Erasmus LCT partner universities, and the point was to meet the other LCT students. Since there are a number of universities in the LCT Consortium, there are LCT students all over Europe who I would never have met, had they not organized this. They do it in a different place each year, and those of us from Saarland were certainly happy that it was in an awesome place like Malta this year!  When we didn’t have meetings, we spent the days swimming, hiking, or cliff diving, and the nights eating seafood and chilling with some beers. As lovely as Malta was, all the wonderful people I met were lovelier still, and it was fantastic to get the chance to meet so many interesting people, and to get to know such a great community.

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A caper flower (like the capers that we eat).

Coming back to real life in Saarbrücken was not easy. In fact, since I came back, I’ve done nothing but work. I had a presentation, I had to finish my HiWi job (no more extra money coming in after this), and my other classes have also really picked up.

In Software Engineering, I am starting to “program” in Xcode using Swift. There are huge air quotes around “program” because apart from the fact that I have no idea what I am doing, I would also say that Xcode is a pain, especially for new people:

  • The whole thing is quite slow, and the simulator that you use to debug with tends to lag, crash, or simply not update. Sometimes you have to restart the whole computer to make it fix itself.
  • Xcode uses some sort of flat file to keep track of project files, so you can have project files strewn across half your file system if you aren’t careful. Adding and removing files from your project is also a hassle.
  • You use a GUI to design a UI and then you literally drag-and-drop using the GUI from the UI elements to lines in the code (wtf?). Presumably you could write actual C code instead of drag-and-dropping (at least I hope that’s true), but finding those C files is also not easy (plus I am not good in C yet).
  • Last, but certainly not least, you have to use a Mac and it has to be a newer Mac if you want to build for the newer iOS. This translates to being rich enough to buy a new Mac every few years.

In my Statistical Natural Language Processing (SNLP) class, we are writing proofs that don’t seem to tie in to much of anything else, based on slides that are confusing or full of mistakes, plus, our tutors either don’t know how any of it works either, or they are inexperienced teachers, but likely both. The class is incredibly frustrating, and not for good reason.

In my Semantic Parsing project seminar, we just started working on our project, which is going to involve using a neural net to parse natural language into Abstract Meaning Representations (AMRs). This is a topic I know very little about in general, but the penalty for failure is low for this class, so hopefully it will be a learning experience. Since we’ll probably be working with TensorFlow in this class, I decided to drop my TensorFlow seminar, because the timeline for the project completion for that seminar would have put me well into the time I should be moving to Italy anyway.

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One of many of the stray cats of Malta, carefully observing me as I try to sneak some pictures.

Speaking of Italy, this weekend, I plan to visit Trento, Italy, where I will be spending my second year, to try to get a lay of the land. My goal is to figure out a good general area to start looking for apartments. I don’t think I will have much luck in the housing search at this time, but at least I’ll know how things look.

I’ve only been to Italy once before, and it was also three weeks ago. During the trip to Malta, we had a layover in Pisa of 4 hours or so, which was just barely enough time for us to run out to the leaning tower, snap a couple pics, and take the bus back to the airport. It was a whirlwind tour of the main parts of  the city, but I remember most vividly the scent of flowers in the air. I think Trento will be a little different though, since it’s in the north, closer to the Alps.

My world is a whirlwind of emotions right now. One day I am hitting my head against a wall of code and math, and the next I am zooming through yet another country, and soon I will be learning another language too. Life never stands still!

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These were the flowers that smelled so nice in Pisa, Italy. Does anyone know what they are?

Costs:

  • €225 – rent
  • €98 – groceries
  • €10 – another replacement student card, because I lost mine again =(
  • €40 – dining/snacks
  • €30 – phone (made some longer phone calls and used lots of data)
  • €175 – Malta (mostly food)
  • €10 – bouldering
  • Total: €588